CLEVELAND – As everyone started to leave the Q in a stunned silence, LeBron James(notes) bit his lip, squinted his eyes and peered down to discover a most disturbing development: The blood of King James flowed to the floor. All around, the Orlando Magic hugged and Stan Van Gundy pumped a fist to the rafters and together the Magic declared themselves liberated as witnesses to the MVP's genius.
Now, LeBron's legs crumpled with muscle cramps, a gash opened on his left shin and soon Cleveland Cavaliers officials rushed to his side. Here was the image that no one expected to see in these Eastern Conference playoffs. LeBron James brought to his knees, bloodied.
Yes, James' smile was gone and the Cavaliers finally found themselves in the playoffs. After eight straight games and eight blowouts, Cleveland was delivered a sobering message by the Magic. Even LeBron's most dynamic game of the postseason – 49 points, eight assists and three blocks – couldn't deliver a victory over the Magic in the opener of the East finals.
The Cavaliers lost 107-106 on Wednesday night, and they lost because the Magic made every immense shot in the final minutes of a fabulous game. They lost because the best defensive team in the NBA couldn't make stops and lost, maybe, because they hadn't been forced to play a tough game in weeks.
Long before Rashard Lewis(notes) hit a contested 3-pointer with 14.7 seconds left, before Cavs guards Delonte West and Mo Williams(notes) missed shots in the final seconds, the Magic listened to Van Gundy implore his team in the huddle that they were best conditioned for these trying times. Orlando had been in these hellacious games with Philadelphia and Boston, and, "He kept saying Cleveland hasn't," Lewis remembered.
Funny, but Van Gundy had to build the Magic back up after tearing them down in a screeching halftime speech. After Williams hit one of those running LeBron-esque 67-footers at the halftime buzzer and the scoreboard blinked 63-48, James would leave the floor with 26 points on a dizzying array of drives and dunks and deep jumpers. The Cavaliers had won 43 of 45 games here this season, and they were running over the Magic like they did the pedestrian Pistons and Hawks.
After nine days away, the Cavaliers never had been so sharp, their precision so peerless. Whatever LeBron wanted, LeBron took. Van Gundy marched into the locker room and screamed, "You're playing like you're all witnesses." This was no Nike commercial, he insisted. This was the conference finals and the Magic coach essentially wondered, you know, how many more chin-ups James would get to do on the rim.
The Magic never did get control of James – who made 20 of 30 shots – but they eventually did find a way to get a scoreless Hedo Turkoglu(notes) free of the Cavaliers' blitzes that stifled his shot and passing lanes, and Lewis hit three 3-pointers, and, above all, Howard destroyed the Cavs with 30 points and 13 rebounds.
When it mattered most, the Magic took the ball out of James' hands on a drive to the rim inside the final 10 seconds. They made him pass to West in the corner, who missed that 3-pointer. James would end up with a jump ball with one second left, and he tipped the ref's lob to Williams, who missed an off-balance 15-footer as the clock expired.
No more do the Magic have to contend with that soft label that comes with so many jump shooters. With the Game 6 and 7 victories over the Boston Celtics, with this stunning Game 1 victory over the Cavs, the Magic have shown the stomach for pressure playoff basketball.
The Magic would benefit because James suffered cramps through most of the fourth quarter, and he even had to call timeouts to get off his feet. It happened in Game 1 of the Atlanta series and again on Wednesday night. Those long layoffs betrayed his body. The stress of these games – the fans, the lights, the sweating – can never be simulated in practices.
"Your body will tell you when you are ready to move," James said. "If you try to move before [then], it is going to hurt."
So, LeBron James, the MVP, welcomed a little uncertainty into the season, the pressure of a Game 2 on Friday night with the world watching to see how the game's greatest talent brings his team back. He'll drink his fluids, he said, stay hydrated and James assured that those legs won't be wobbly when the Magic come for him. The Magic tried everything, but perhaps it was the inactivity, the unchallenging nature of this easy playoff run, that doomed James and the Cavs in Game 1.
"The one thing that I don't leave this game with, is any idea whatsoever what to do with him," Van Gundy said. "As a coach, you're supposed to have some idea. I don't have a clue."
When it was time to leave the interview room late Wednesday, James seemed oddly at peace with a test, with playoff pressure crashing into Cleveland's private party. "Nobody said it was going to be easy," James insisted. He popped on his sunglasses, walked down the stairs and flashed a smile to a couple of Cavaliers officials.
No, Orlando hadn't come to be witnesses to the MVP's championship chase. The Magic took his best shot, and ultimately left LeBron James in the middle of the floor, in the middle of May, bent over and bleeding.
- Stan Van Gundy